Staging Beckett and Contemporary Theatre and Performance Cultures
This special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review (28.1) reflects on how selected contemporary theatre and performance practices and discourses have engaged with or been influenced by the work of Samuel Beckett. The issue arises from the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Staging Beckett project which was a collaboration between the universities of Chester and Reading and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and ran from 2012-2015. The project documented and discussed mainly professional productions of Beckett’s drama in the UK and Ireland, and has produced a searchable database and other online resources that can be accessed on the project website: https://www.reading.ac.uk/staging-beckett/. In this issue we wanted to bring a range of contemporary practices and critical discourses from theatre and performance studies into dialogue with Beckett’s theatre.
Although thoroughly canonised in the twenty-first century, Beckett’s plays remain an important medium for what Herbert Blau termed ‘thinking through’ theatre and performance, asking fundamental questions about the interrelations between self and other, human and non-human, theatre and the other arts, and between the performing body, voice, technology, space, time and the ethics of witnessing. Beckett’s work therefore has the potential to open up new creative practices and vocabularies for testing the languages and boundaries of theatre in the twenty-first century. The print volume of this special issue aims to explore some of Beckett’s living legacies for the discipline of theatre and performance: the generation of new approaches to theatre and performance studies (Carl Lavery writes about the repositioning of the human in the oikos in Beckett’s work, for example, Trish McTighe discusses theatre festival programming and place, while Andrew Lennon writes about darkness in productions of Beckett’s later plays); new engagements with the performance archive (Sinead Mooney); or the intersections between Beckett’s work and installation art (Derval Tubridy and Brenda O’Connell). O’Connell’s essay on Irish performance artist Amanda Coogan provided us with the cover image to the print issue. Interviews with practitioners who have worked with Beckett’s texts were a key element of the project and the Backpages and Documents sections of the print journal include interviews with festival director Sean Doran, the late theatre director, William Gaskill, director Katie Mitchell and choreographer John Scott. In the essays section, directors Sarah Jane Scaife and Phillip Zarrilli write about their work with Beckett’s texts in performance.
In this Interventions section, we wanted to explore new directions in staging Beckett, from digital and virtual productions of his work to neurodiverse performances and the increasing packaging of Beckett’s work within a festival context. Nicholas Johnson, drama lecturer at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), and Néill O’Dwyer reflect on a series of projects undertaken at Trinity which used twenty-first century technologies to creatively interpret Beckett’s plays. In particular, they discuss their collaboration with V-SENSE, a research group in the School of Computer Science and Statistics at TCD, to produce Beckett’s Play (1963) using FVV (free-viewpoint video), a form of user-centred VR (virtual reality). As well as harnessing VR technologies in the context of creative arts practice, the experience of the piece raised fascinating questions about the role of the spectator as interrogator or witness in Beckett’s play.
Jonathan Heron, theatre practitioner and performance scholar who has been working in the interstices of Beckett, medical humanities, pedagogy and performance practice, discusses his series of projects with the late Beckett theatre scholar and performer, Rosemary Pountney, and the digital iterations and traces of that collaboration. These include experiments with Beckett’s short prose text, Lessness, which consists of a finite series of sentences repeated in different combinations. The text itself evokes an isolated figure, sole human survivor in a ruinstrewn land. The final project they worked on, End/Lessness, can be accessed online, and uses a computational model of time to play every permutation of the sentences of Lessness read by Rosemary, without repetition, from 2017 until completion – which would be beyond any human lifespan. Heron considers the implications of this for thinking about mortality, temporality and linguistic and computational patterns or games through the not quite endless iterations of Beckett’s short text.
Derval Tubridy’s Intervention reflects on a performance of Beckett’s Not I by Jess Thom of Touretteshero [see https://www.touretteshero.com/safe/2017/05/26/not-i-and-me/] which played at the Battersea Arts Centre in February / March 2018, after a run at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe. She argues that Touretteshero’s performance of Not I ‘extends the parameters of performance by drawing out the corporeal and linguistic implications of neurological diversity, the intersection between agency and intention in the speaking body, and by embedding corporeal translation of the voiced text at the heart of performance through British Sign Language.’ She investigates Beckett’s interest in neurodiversity and proposes that Touretteshero’s Not I changes how we think about agency and access, placing the neurodiverse body ‘as central agent and vital audience’. Tubridy has written about the intersections between installation art and contemporary productions or adaptations of Beckett’s work in the print journal of this issue.
Trish McTighe and Kathryn White give an account of their November 2017 Symposium on Beckett, Ireland and the Biographical Festival at the Metropolitan Arts Centre in Belfast. The single author festival is well established in Ireland from the annual Yeats Festival in Sligo to the Beckett summer school at Trinity College Dublin since 2011, and the annual Happy Days International Beckett Festival, established by Sean Doran, which ran from 2012 to 2015 and was revived again in 2017. McTighe and White argue that an analysis of festivals and festival cultures is an important aspect of the consideration of Beckett’s place within the field of contemporary art and performance and connect the worlds of arts, business, and tourism in complex ways. They conclude that ‘Festival cultures … are not the only conduits of the work, but are also powerful tools for remaking, reshaping, renewing and remembering and as such demand that we engage with them critically’. This Intervention links to McTighe’s essay in the print journal and to the interview with Seán Doran in the Backpages section.
Collaboration and experimentation are the heart of these Interventions, and we hope that, along with the print journal, they will generate further debates, dialogues and creative practices which reconsider Beckett’s relation to contemporary landscapes of theatre and performance.
– Anna McMullan, co-editor with Graham Saunders of the special issue